Giffords Recovering, But Civil Discourse Hasn't

Captain Mark Kelly hugs his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the White House in October. i i

Captain Mark Kelly hugs his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the White House in October. Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Captain Mark Kelly hugs his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the White House in October.

Captain Mark Kelly hugs his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the White House in October.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

When a gunman opened fire on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and others at a shopping center near Tucson exactly a year ago — killing six people and injuring Giffords and many others — some people were quick to blame the episode on the overheated political climate.

At the time of the attack, there was a high tide of political rhetoric across America and a low ebb of social civility. The New York Times reported that the shootings "raised questions about potential political motives" and that the Pima County, Ariz., sheriff was blaming the tragedies on "the toxic political environment."

According to The Times, national reaction was immediate. "Democrats denounced the fierce partisan atmosphere in Giffords' district and top Republicans quickly condemned the violence."

President Obama made a fervent appeal for "more civil and honest public discourse."

As the nation has watched Giffords' heroic struggle to recover, it has also continued to publicly debate the importance of manners in public debate. Now the country is in the middle of a high-intensity presidential election. Politicians are slinging sludge and slamming their opponents — even within their own party. The moratorium on verbal mayhem is a distant mist, and campaigning has again become a running series of $#*! Candidates Say About Each Other.

So on the first anniversary of the Tucson massacre, it's only natural to ask the obvious question: Whatever happened to political civility?

Grappling With Civility

Revved-up political rhetoric is always with us, says Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of the Institute for Civility in Government, a nonpartisan Houston-based group that stages civility workshops and leads student field trips to Washington. "I don't think it becomes any worse during an election year. There is simply more of it. It becomes more difficult to avoid. But the nature of heated rhetoric otherwise remains, I believe, much the same."

Dahnke says she is "grateful that the country continues to grapple with civility and its relative importance to life in the public square."

But spoor of incivility is easy to find on the campaign trail. The stampeding candidates often poke and gore one another with sharp-horned barbs. For example, Jon Huntsman has told voters that Ron Paul is "not electable." Ron Paul has called Newt Gingrich a "chicken hawk" — in Sunday's New Hampshire debate and before — who avoided military service but sends others to fight wars. Gingrich has said that all Mitt Romney wants to do is "hide over here and pretend it's not his fault that he is flooding the people of Iowa with falsehoods." Romney has quipped that Rick Perry's approach to Social Security is not a "Ponzi scheme," it's a "Perry scheme." Attacks by Democrats can be just as crass.

Rudeness often dominates Internet comment sections and radio talk shows and TV town halls, leading to uncivil wars of words.

In Dahnke's opinion, "a lack of civility drives people from the conversation, and cripples the collaborative processes needed for a healthy democracy to endure. Without civility, we may be speaking at one another, but we are not necessarily speaking with one another, and if we cannot speak with one another, we can scarcely accomplish much else."

A Brittle Citizenry?

Over the years, everyone from Karl Rove on the right to Norman Lear on the left has called for a more mannerly body politic.

"American political discourse seems to be on a path to paralysis," Steve Crosby, dean of the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said in a statement recently. He was speaking about his school's newly created Center for Civil Discourse. "Extremist rhetoric permeates every level of political debate — from Congress to traditional media to the Internet.

Crosby said his center's goal "is to explore the meaning of civility and its role in American democracy and to encourage its practice."

This being America, however, not everyone shares that sentiment.

Writing in the Libertarian magazine Reason, David Harsanyi once asked, "Have we transformed into so brittle a citizenry that we are unable to handle a raucous debate over the future of the country? If things were quiet, subdued and 'civil' in America today ... it only would be proof that democracy isn't working."

And the late Christopher Hitchens reportedly said that civility is overrated.

"Some find in civility merit," Dahnke says, "others find weakness and/or political correctness."

Being civil, she says, "does not preclude one from being passionate, forceful or tough. It does preclude one from being rude, callous or mean."

Her institute defines civility as "claiming and caring for one's identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else's in the process." Dahnke says, "We aren't expecting people to always agree, nor would we want them to be anything less than passionate about their positions. But a person should not have to resort to rudeness, hostility and/or falsehood to make a reasoned point."

But isn't rough-and-tumble language the price we pay for free speech? "Yes," Dahnke says. "But as Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court is credited with saying, 'There is a big difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.' "



In The Year Since The Tucson Shooting

After the shooting that killed six and wounded 13, the nation mourned with Tucson even as it healed.

  • Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, wave at the start of a memorial in Tuscon, Ariz, on Jan. 8. The vigil marked the anniversary of the shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 injured, including Giffords.
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    Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, wave at the start of a memorial in Tuscon, Ariz, on Jan. 8. The vigil marked the anniversary of the shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 injured, including Giffords.
    Ross D. Franklin/AP
  • In a video released Jan. 22, Giffords announces her plans to resign from Congress in order to concentrate on recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.
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    In a video released Jan. 22, Giffords announces her plans to resign from Congress in order to concentrate on recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.
    Office of Gabrielle Giffords/AP
  • Giffords reenacts her swearing-in with House Speaker John Boehner. The Democrat has represented Arizona's 8th congressional district since 2007.
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    Giffords reenacts her swearing-in with House Speaker John Boehner. The Democrat has represented Arizona's 8th congressional district since 2007.
    Susan Walsh/AP
  • Giffords was shot in the head during an event to meet constituents in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the attack.
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    Giffords was shot in the head during an event to meet constituents in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011. Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the attack.
    Laura Segall/Getty Images
  • Jared Loughner was charged with the shooting. In May, a federal judge ruled Loughner incompetent to stand trial and ordered that he receive treatment.
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    Jared Loughner was charged with the shooting. In May, a federal judge ruled Loughner incompetent to stand trial and ordered that he receive treatment.
    U.S. Marshal's Office/AP
  • People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside Giffords' Tucson office a day after the shooting.
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    People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside Giffords' Tucson office a day after the shooting.
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
  • Members of Congress and their staff gather on the steps of the House of Representatives on Jan. 10 for a national moment of silence to honor the shooting victims.
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    Members of Congress and their staff gather on the steps of the House of Representatives on Jan. 10 for a national moment of silence to honor the shooting victims.
    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Kelly holds Giffords' hand in her hospital room at University Medical Center in Tucson on Jan. 11.
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    Kelly holds Giffords' hand in her hospital room at University Medical Center in Tucson on Jan. 11.
    U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office via Getty Images
  • Daniel Hernandez, an intern with Giffords at the time of the shooting, is credited with saving the congresswoman's life.
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    Daniel Hernandez, an intern with Giffords at the time of the shooting, is credited with saving the congresswoman's life.
    Matt York/AP
  • President Obama hugs Kelly during a memorial service, "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America," at the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson on Jan. 12.
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    President Obama hugs Kelly during a memorial service, "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America," at the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson on Jan. 12.
    Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
  • Kelly stands over his wife's hospital bed on a deck outside University Medical Center on Jan. 20.
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    Kelly stands over his wife's hospital bed on a deck outside University Medical Center on Jan. 20.
    Office of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords/AP
  • Kelly was mission commander for the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour. The shuttle launched May 16 on a 16-day mission.
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    Kelly was mission commander for the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour. The shuttle launched May 16 on a 16-day mission.
    NASA/Getty Images
  • Patricia Maisch (right), who helped disarm Loughner, embraces Georgia Lerner, whose mother died in the shooting. Maisch testified on Capitol Hill in support of a bill to strengthen background checks for people who buy firearms.
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    Patricia Maisch (right), who helped disarm Loughner, embraces Georgia Lerner, whose mother died in the shooting. Maisch testified on Capitol Hill in support of a bill to strengthen background checks for people who buy firearms.
    Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Giffords appears on the floor of the House of Representatives for the first time since she was shot to vote on a debt standoff compromise on Aug. 1.
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    Giffords appears on the floor of the House of Representatives for the first time since she was shot to vote on a debt standoff compromise on Aug. 1.
    House Television/AP
  • Kelly hugs his wife after receiving the Legion of Merit from Vice President Joe Biden during a retirement ceremony on Oct. 6.
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    Kelly hugs his wife after receiving the Legion of Merit from Vice President Joe Biden during a retirement ceremony on Oct. 6.
    Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

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